WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is moving to relax restrictions on how counterterrorism analysts may retrieve, store and search information about Americans gathered by government agencies for purposes other than national security threats.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday signed new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center, which was created in 2004 to foster intelligence sharing and serve as a terrorism threat clearinghouse.
The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center’s making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” — using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat — than it currently does.
Intelligence officials Thursday said the new rules have been under development for about 18 months and grew out of reviews launched after the failure to connect the dots about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called underwear bomber, before his Dec. 25, 2009, attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner.
After the failed attack, government agencies discovered they had intercepted communications by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and received a report from a U.S. Consulate in Nigeria that could have identified the attacker, if the information had been compiled ahead of time.
The changes are intended to allow analysts to more quickly identify terrorism suspects. But they also set off civil-liberties concerns among privacy advocates who invoked the “Total Information Awareness” program. That program, proposed early in the George W. Bush administration and partially shut down by Congress after an outcry, proposed fusing vast archives of electronic records — like travel records, credit card transactions, phone calls and more — and searching for patterns of a hidden terrorist cell.
But national security officials stressed that analysts could already get the same information under the old rules, just in a more cumbersome way. They cited safeguards to protect against abuse, including audits of searches. The same rules apply to access by other federal agencies involved in counterterrorism.
“There is a genuine operational need to try to get us into a position where we can make the maximum use of the information the government already has to protect people,” said Robert S. Litt, the general counsel in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the National Counterterrorism Center. “We have to manage to do that in a way that provides protection to people’s civil liberties and privacy. And I really think this has been a good-faith and reasonably successful effort to do that.”
The center has developed a priority list of databases it wants to copy entirely, but he and other officials declined to say which ones they were. (The Department of Homeland Security says it has already shared several entire databases, including records related to refugees, foreign students and international travelers.)